Friday, October 22, 2010

Unlocking the Mystery of Gravity Hill

For decades, Gravity Hill has been a place of fascination, wonderment and teenage high jinks. It’s on a sweeping, two-lane country road with a gentle dip where cars seem to roll uphill, defying gravity.

During the 1970s, Mike Thompson and his buddies would have fun testing the spot on Oak Glen Road. They would pile into a car in downtown Beaumont, head north into the mountains and wait to be amazed. This was small-town fun at its finest on Friday and Saturday nights.

Coasting to glory

The boys had the routine down pat: Come to a stop, put the car in neutral, let off the brakes, and within moments, the car seemed to be miraculously rolling uphill and gathering speed. There were hoots and cheers, but not because the laws of physics had suddenly been suspended in the San Gorgonio Pass. No, this was a contest with bragging rights!

You see, the boys were trying to see how far they could coast—even if they had to tap the brakes a few times as they rounded tight corners. This was a time of heavy cars and little traffic in the Pass—and sometimes they would go far! Thompson remembers careening through Cherry Valley before gliding right up to the old Alpha Beta on Beaumont Avenue—a five mile run from Gravity Hill. (A few years ago, the supermarket was torn down and replaced by a new Stater Bros.)

Deepening mystery

Over the years, the attraction and myth of Gravity Hill grew along with the hometown coasting contests. That place seemed to intrigue and even mystify the locals. But with the teenage years so full of merriment, it always seemed that answers could wait. Besides, why ruin such a fantastic legend and spoil the fun?

Still, as he grew older, Mike Thompson found himself occasionally drawn to the “mystery of Gravity Hill.” It nagged at him. When the Beaumont Blogger asked him to relive his teenage years by going up to Gravity Hill and making one final run, well, he just couldn’t resist. Thompson grabbed his carpenter’s level and headed for the spot at 12849 Oak Glen Road.

“This is something that I always wanted to do,” he said.

Looking for answers

Was the celebrated spot an optical illusion or a true life mystery? Or were magnetic or even supernatural forces at work? The phenomenon has been reported around the world in almost every culture—some places just seem to defy the laws of nature. Experts say the layout of the surrounding landscape produces an optical illusion that tricks us into believing that a very slight downhill slope is actually uphill. And so, a car left out of gear will appear to be rolling uphill against gravity’s pull. Scientists say the most important factor contributing to this illusion is a completely or mostly obscured horizon. Without the horizon for a reference point, it becomes very difficult to judge the slope of a surface.

Solving a mystery

Thompson wanted to know if the seemingly matter-of-fact explanations made sense. He placed his level on the ground and carefully tested the roadway at three points. He uses the tool everyday as a construction superintendent, and it never lies. Thompson stood up, grabbed the level, and carried it like a walking stick. After nearly 40 years, he had his answer to the secret of Gravity Hill.

“You’re actually going downhill,” he concluded. “But it looks like you’re going uphill.” His words came out softly though, as if to protect the mystery for all time.